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They came to Madison Square Garden to witness a coronation.
Former Duke players flew in to see Mike Krzyzewski become the first Division I men's coach to win 1,000 games. Dozens of reporters traveled from every corner of the country to pen odes to the greatest college basketball coach of his era. Some of the sport's most prominent coaches even took the time to tape fawning video messages that aired on FOX's broadcast throughout the game.
Yes, everything was in place for a perfect celebration in Krzyzewski's honor except for one thing: For a while, it appeared St. John's wouldn't let the Duke coach make history at its expense.
Fifth-ranked Duke escaped with a 77-68 road win on Sunday afternoon despite trailing St. John's by 10 points with just over eight minutes left in the game. Only after Krzyzewski made the unlikely decision to insert seldom-used backup center Marshall Plumlee alongside starter Jahlil Okafor did the Blue Devils finally clamp down on defense and begin showing signs of life.
The presence of a pair of 7-footers in the paint gave Duke the size it needed to protect the rim and prevent St. John's perimeter standouts Sir'Dominic Pointer and Rysheed Jordan from attacking the rim at will. The Johnnies had been shooting 50 percent from the field prior to the adjustment, but they made just 2 of 11 shots during the final eight minutes and were outscored 26-7 to finish the game.
Spearheading Duke's offensive surge was the trio of Okafor and guards Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, who combined to score the first 25 points of that run. Okafor overpowered the thin St. John's frontcourt in the paint, Cook buried jump shots and drew fouls attacking the rim and Jones sank the game-clinching shot, a corner 3-pointer that put Duke up seven with just over a minute to play and secured Krzyzewski's latest landmark win — not that personal milestones were foremost on his mind.
"We were getting our butts kicked most of the game," Krzyzewski told FOX's Gus Johnson on the floor just after the final buzzer. "St. John's played so well. Then all of a sudden we put Marshall Plumlee in. We haven't used that lineup much. And Marshall and Jah together, I don't know, there was a spark.
"It was tough to get involved with 1,000. I was just trying to survive this game."
Krzyzewski joins former Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt as the only Division I coaches with 1,000 wins. The closest Division I men's coach to his career win total is Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, who has 962 victories and could get to 1,000 in the next year or two.
That Krzyzewski has eclipsed all of his peers is remarkable considering how his Duke career began.
The little-known Army coach was such a surprising hire in 1980 that Duke's student newspaper mocked the choice at the time with the derisive front-page headline "Krzyzewski: this is not a typo." Krzyzewski's 38-47 record in his first three seasons at Duke only fueled discontent, especially with North Carolina at the peak of its power under Dean Smith and NC State capturing a surprise national championship in 1983 under Jim Valvano.
When turned things around for Krzyzewski was a star-studded 1982 recruiting class headlined by Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas and Mark Alarie. That class propelled Krzyzewski to his first NCAA tournament in 1984 and took him to the national title game in 1986, paving the way for a remarkable career that now includes four national titles, 11 Final Fours and more wins than every other Division I men's coach.
"I thought he was a great coach and I never doubted he would be successful, but I don't think when I was playing that I could wrap my head around 1,000 wins or 35 years at one place," Bilas said. "I was in school when Michael Jordan was at North Carolina. We all knew he'd be great. We all knew he would be an NBA all-star. But I don't know anyone said he'd be the greatest player to ever play. I would sort of liken it to that with [Krzyzewski]."
While Krzyzewski downplayed the significance of his 1,000th win and took a businesslike approach after the game, it was clear his players took a lot of pride in delivering that victory to him on their first try.
They donned special "K" caps and "Coach K" T-Shirts in the handshake line. They hugged Krzyzewski and his wife. And they celebrated a milestone victory that seemed as though it might not come for most of the day.
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